This matchup, on the surface, is nothing Wisconsin and its number of fans need to worry about at all. They should be able to lay on their couches with their bellies stuffed full of Thanksgiving leftovers and watch a dominant Badger win.
Coming off of a 24-10 victory over Michigan, head coach Paul Chryst are flying high and sit with their College Football Destiny in their hands. Win the last two games and they are in. Lose once, and they’ll be on the outside looking in.
Minnesota is a bit of a different story. Coming off of a 39-0 loss to Northwestern, the Gophers are basically playing for nothing other than to spoil Wisconsin’s undefeated season. Head coach P.J. Fleck may be a bit more motivated this weekend after getting a contract extension through the 2022 season.
Here is what to look out for in the Battle for the Axe.
Offense: Alex Hornibrook
The Wisconsin quarterback has had the definition of a roller coaster season. Hornibrook will start a game not completing anything, especially out routes, and then throw an interception. After that interception, he will throw a series of flawless passes and thread the needle on a touchdown pass.
This has been the story game in and game out. Last week’s Michigan game was no different. The sophomore quarterback went through almost three-quarters of football struggling to get his offense going.
He then threw an interception and came back the next drive looking like Aaron Rodgers as he threw the ball perfectly as Wisconsin drove down the field on a touchdown drive.
But against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, slow starts and mistakes early cannot happen. The perfect place to end a streak of eight games with an interception? At Minnesota who has a terrible defense.
Defense: Olive Sagapolu
If Minnesota’s offense is good at anything, it is their rushing attack. The only way Minnesota will be able to hang around with Wisconsin is if their running backs have success.
The first line in the battle in the trenches is the defensive line. Nose Tackle Olive Sagapolu will have to lead the way for Wisconsin’s defense.
On the season, Sagapolu has only 14 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. But the statline is not the place to go to learn about the impact of a defensive lineman. Sagapolu is the only plowing the way through an offensive line creating gaps for linebackers and defensive ends to run through.
If T.J. Edwards, Leon Jacobs or Ryan Connely have big days, look for them to be thanking Sagapolu on the sideline.
Offense: Rodney Smith
Two weeks ago, Minnesota dominated floundering Nebraska 54-21. That dominant performance came on the heels of running back Rodney Smith. If Minnesota has any hope, it is with Smith.
Against Nebraska, he ran 24 times for 134 yards. But he is also a very real threat in the return game as he also took one back 100 yards for a touchdown in that game as well.
On the season, Smith has almost 1,000 yards rushing for an average of 4.2 yards per carry. He generally does not score much though as he only has three touchdowns on the season. Power Back Kobe McCrary tends to get goal-line carries and has eight touchdowns on the season.
The return game is where Smith may be able to turn the tide against Wisconsin. Smith is averaging 24.7 yards per kick return.
Defense: Jacob Huff
The junior safety will be the key player to watch on Minnesota’s defense as he will look to stop Hornibrook from having his first quality overall game in about nine weeks.
On the season, Huff has 3.5 tackles for loss, highlighting his ability to come down and disrupt the run. Wisconsin fans will see shades of D’Cota Dixon in the safety.
Huff also three interceptions and has returned those interceptions for a total of 67 yards. He also has seven passes defended to go along with his four pass breakups.
He will look to make Wisconsin’s offense a very one-dimensional running offense on Saturday.